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Gas prices don't deter RVers

RV News Biggest-ever show caters to freewheelers...By Laura Ruane

Fuel prices are "frustrating," said Jim Williams, who recalled paying about $285 the last time he filled the 100-gallon diesel tank of his 38-foot Dutch Star motor home in December.

Still, they'd have to get a lot worse before the 66-year-old Michigan man and his wife would stop coming to Southwest Florida for the winter, and taking other trips to such far-flung places as New England, Texas and Seattle.

"If it got to be $4 a gallon, that might make me reconsider my plans," said Williams, who spends six months or less in their home in Jackson, Mich.

"I like going to different locations, as opposed to having a permanent second residence," Williams said.

Financially comfortable retirees like the Williamses are a big reason why dealer expectations are high for the 21st annual Fort Myers RV show, which begins Thursday.

"The people who buy the big rigs are people who've earned the money. Now they want to live that lifestyle," said Jerry Byers, sales manager for North Trail RV Center in east Fort Myers. He represents one of about 20 dealerships planning to participate in the local RV show at Lee Civic Center in North Fort Myers.

Organizers say it will be the biggest ever with more than 1,000 RVs on display and more than 90 camping supply vendors. The RVs will range from $3,000 "pop-up" tent campers to motor coaches with price tags of $500,000 or more.

In Lee County, the average price of a gallon of regular grade gasoline hit an all-time high of $3.033 on Sept. 6. The average price fell below $2.20 in late 2005, but has been climbing again in 2006. On Monday, the average price was $2.446, according to AAA. A year ago, that same gallon cost $1.94.

The price of a gallon of diesel in Lee County reached a record of $3.362 on Oct. 10. On Monday, the average cost was $2.631.

The pain at the pump appeared to be taking a toll in the first quarter of 2005, when deliveries of new motor homes to dealers fell 13.6 percent nationally compared with the same quarter in 2004.

Closer to year-end, however, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association predicted RV shipments would reach 376,700, which would be a 1.8 percent increase over 2004, and the highest level since 1978.

The RVIA tends to dismiss fuel prices as a sales deterrent in any year, but RVIA spokesman Ken Sommer noted that, "in 2005 the lightweight trailers were really popular."

At North Trail RV Center, Byers said " '05 was a terrific year the best we've had even with (higher) gas prices."

With a big crop of affluent early retirees here for at least part of the year, local RV dealers are sitting pretty, according to Byers: "If the economy slows across the nation, we slow last and we gear up first."

And, when fuel prices rise, RV owners often find ways to economize without giving up their homes on wheels.

"A lot of the older folks who have Class A (motor homes) are trading down to get better mileage," said Danny Wise, whose family owns American Van & Camper Center in south Fort Myers.

Class A refers to the roomiest of the motorized RVs. The Wise family specializes in smaller motor homes and vans.

Former Cape Coral residents and full-time RVers Marty and Terry Doede said they don't move their motor home as often as they did when gas was cheaper: "You really think about where you travel and you make it worthwhile when you get there," said Marty Doede, 69.

On Friday, Claude Chausse gassed up his pickup at the Pilot truck stop in east Fort Myers. His new travel trailer was hitched behind.

"I was camping with a tent two years ago, then I got too old," joked Chausse, a 56-year-old dentist from Canada. He spent the last month in south Florida with his parents and his wife and loves the comfort and economy of the trailer.

"For a month, it will cost $5,000 for all of us including gas for the truck," Chausse said. "Some friends of ours just two of them, came by plane, and stayed four weeks in motels. It's costing $5,000 for each of them."

Chausse said gas prices aren't changing his travel habits, although eventually they will prod him into buying a new truck. The V-6 engine on his four-door Nissan Frontier "is too small to haul," Chausse said.

He averages just 9 miles per gallon when towing the trailer; without it, the truck gets about 20 mpg. "The next one will be a diesel, which is more efficient."